From Denial to INTROSPECTION
“God calls people to himself, but they turn away to
something less than God, fashioning a religious
experience but avoiding God.”
Many of us are familiar with the Serenity Prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr in the first half of the 20th century and found in prayer books and on plaques:
God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
The prayer is a beautiful reminder that we are not in control. Less familiar is the second part of this prayer which is equally poignant:
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Each line is packed with meaning but perhaps most significant are the lines that speak of “taking this sinful world as it is rather than as we would have it.” Facing reality is difficult and sometimes painful. Not only the reality of a sinful world but also our own sin and pain. We can struggle with living in denial, pretending that things are different than they actually are.
Because of skewed understandings of what makes us worthy of love and affection, we can engage in elaborate schemes of pretending. However, we are invited to share in the divine nature. The Trinity lives in an eternal dance of love in which they share total transparency with one another. Part of love is being willing to be vulnerable through being fully known by another. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit dance together with a transparent trust, giving themselves fully to one another. It is into this same dance that we are invited. As long as we are pretending and withholding, we cannot fully experience His love.
It is easy to observe that Jesus would draw people out of denial by asking questions. “What do you want me to do for you?” “Who do you think I am?” His questions were challenging people to live with the same transparency and openness that He enjoys in His eternal communion with the Father and Spirit. Swiss mystic Adrienne von Speyr commented, “He allowed Himself to become transparent in pure service and obedience so that human spirit could once again be transparent to the Father.”
When mankind was created, the man and woman were naked and they were not ashamed (Genesis 2:25). Their nakedness was physical and even more importantly psychological and spiritual. They were naked because they were living in pure communion with the Trinity. They hid nothing, just as God was transparent and hid nothing from them. The “transparency” of God was what the serpent called into question when he suggested that God knew things that He was not disclosing with them.
Moving into a place of transparency with God allows us to experience His love in the real conditions of our lives. Whether hurts from the past, sin in the present, or worry about the future, until we are honest and transparent, His love is only theoretical. It is a nice idea that we sing about and a theological proposition that we trust, but it does not have the force of being a relational reality at work in our lives. Our desire to be loved is realized as we move from denial to introspection. We move into regular rhythms of introspection because denial keeps us from really knowing ourselves. There is much that lays hidden, even from us, in our hearts.
Introspection and self-knowledge allow us to experience a mutual knowing with God, and this is part of the way the Trinity dances: knowing and being known. John Calvin, in The Institutes of Christian Religion, shared, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Why? Because when we know ourselves and move into transparency with God, we experience His love, care, and provision in ways previously unknown. So, the more we know ourselves, coupled with prayerful disclosure and abiding, the more we will know God.
Two primary fears can hinder our attempts at healthy self-knowledge. First, we can worry that there is too much underneath the surface that is ugly and the voice of shame can arise. Second, we can become paralyzed by the task, concerned that we will not be able to see all that is there. Beautifully and predictably, our gracious God meets us in these fears as He reminds us that He searches the hearts and leads us where we need to go (Psalm 139:23-24). Certainly, there is a tendency for our hearts to be mired in deceit and shame but He promises to search, heal and deliver when we open ourselves to Him and join Him in searching our hearts. (Jeremiah 17:9-10, 14)
Thankfully, this movement from the dance of denial to the dance of introspection is not something that we do alone. The movement and shift itself is part of the dance. Brennan Manning said,
“The Good News means that we can stop lying to ourselves. The sweet sound of amazing grace saves us from the necessity of self-deception. It keeps us from denying that though Christ was victorious, the battle with lust, greed, and pride still rages within us. As a sinner who has been redeemed, I can acknowledge that I am often unloving, irritable, angry, and resentful with those who are closest to me.”
So, how do we move into those rhythms of introspection? First, we understand the ways that we run from reality, or live in denial. Second, we engage in introspection and look at the ways that self-ignorance work. Third, we receive His love in the real conditions of our lives.
Running from Reality is the Temptation
As we look back to the account of Adam and Even in Genesis 3:7, we notice that they experienced a significant shift as soon as they ate the fruit: “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” They experienced an unhealthy self-knowledge. It was a knowledge independent of their relationship with the Trinity. In his book on contemplative prayer, Bill Volkman writes this about the tree in Genesis 2-3,
“Like Adam and Eve, we all have been given the same basic commandment: ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.’ But, like Adam and Eve, most of us continue to make the mistake of choosing to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, or tree of knowing, instead of in faith taking from the Tree of Life, the Tree of Unknowing.”
All knowledge about ourselves must be experienced in the context of loving relationship. Before the temptation, Adam and Even were naked and not ashamed. They didn’t know everything and were incomplete in many ways (they still had a lot to learn) but it didn’t produce a sense of shame. God would teach and lead them. After the fall, they experienced their incompleteness and need in isolation from God. The tree of knowledge symbolizes self-directed, self-sustaining knowledge but the tree of unknowing symbolizes trusting, God-directed mutual knowing.
The joy of moving toward introspection is that we can experience ourselves in the context of loving relationship and be unashamed. In the Beatitudes of Matthew 5, Jesus shares, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.” When we experience our spiritual poverty and utter need in the context of relationship with God, it liberates us from self-interest, self-protection, and self-preoccupation. When our need and incompleteness is experienced outside of relationship with God, it produces fear and shame.
After they ate the fruit, Adam and Eve shifted into denial mode. We observe several ways in which they denied what was happening: covering, hiding, and blaming. We can engage in these same forms of denial.
- Covering: we cover when we put on a mask and act like everything is okay in our lives. Frequently, our masks also involve self-deception. We cover so that we can look differently for others but also to look differently to ourselves. When we cover, we can start to believe something other than the truth is reality.
- Hiding: we hide as we isolate and move away from others. The isolation may come in the form of physically isolating or emotionally withdrawing in the context of ongoing relationships. This kind of denial might not involve self-deception in the way that covering does, but it denies the relevance of one’s inner world to others.
- Blaming: this form of denial often acknowledges the sinful, painful realities of one’s life but puts the blame on others. Certainly, there are times that we suffer at the hands of another but blaming tends to deny any personal responsibility in our woundedness.
Where do you see yourself in these forms of denial? Moving out of denial starts with acknowledging our preferred strategies for denial. As we examine these places in our lives, it is easy to slip into shame or frustration but it is vital to remember that these are learned behaviors from the time we are children. For most of us, our families of origin were not safe places where we could be fully honest about our interior worlds. And then, many of churches are what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the pious fellowship” which “permits no one to be a sinner.”
Once we acknowledge our denial, then we can begin to move toward looking at our inner world and how we process the realities of our inner life.
Re-Examine Reality through Introspection
In Ephesians 4:17-19, the Apostle Paul challenges us to “walk no longer as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” The word used for “walk” is the Greek word, peripateo, which means to “walk in a circle.” It describes the habits and patterns that constitute a way of life. It is important to see that we are not commanded to simply stop certain behaviors but to look at the way we approach life. Much teaching about our life in Christ is centered around behavior modification or sin management but dancing with the Trinity involves looking at our approach to and way of life. As the Lord said to Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:7, man looks at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart.
So, what is this way of life we are being challenged to abandon in Ephesians 4? It is described by the phrase: “futility of their minds.” The word futility could also be translated as empty or not meaningful. It is limited thinking that is not free to consider all of life as it is. When we continue to maintain old ways of thinking and receiving life, we will never put ourselves in a place of receiving and enjoying the love of the Trinity.
Futile thinking does not accomplish its intended purpose. Notice how the progression in the following verses give us insight into the source of futile thinking:
They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. (Eph. 4:18)
“Darkened in understanding” is the concept of clouded perception where there is no understanding about our interior world. We just go along, unaware of why we do what we do and the forces at work in the choices we make. And, “alienated from the life of God” is a description of living with no awareness of God’s presence in our lives.
We live this “old way” when we live without an awareness of God at work in all things. Even a follower of Christ can live this way. As a person who has a real relationship with God, we can live as though He isn’t present and isn’t at work in us all the time.
The last phrase of Ephesians 4:18 describes the source of this lack of awareness: hardness of heart. What is hardness of heart? It is helpful to think about the nature of a soft heart. A soft heart is permeable and open. In contrast, the hard heart is closed and protective. Because of experiencing pain at various points in our lives, we harden our hearts. We make decisions and promises to ourselves that we won’t get hurt again. When we shut down our heart to pain, we also shut it down to love, joy, meaning, and communion with God and others.
This hardness of heart (the decision to not feel pain) leads to “sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” (Ephesians 4:19) Why do we do what the things we don’t want to do? Why do we find ourselves doing things to take away the pain? Because we’ve hardened our hearts. In what ways have you hardened your heart? Part of moving into the rhythm of introspection is the opening your heart to the reality that you’ve hardened it.
How do we know where we’ve hardened our hearts? It involves noticing the thought processes and triggers that lead us into the patterns of sensuality. Sensuality is engaging in behaviors in order take away the pain of life. It could be taking good things, like family or serving others or a job, and obsessively focusing on them. It could be engaging in private behaviors like abusing sexuality or substances. All too often, we focus on the patterns of sensual (sinful) behavior but refuse to look at the hardening of our hearts and commitment to not feel pain.
Finally, the word “greed” in verse 19 gives us insight into the addictive nature of the behaviors that spring from the hardened. Greed emerges because none of our sensual behaviors ever fully satisfy. They can never fully take away the pain in our hearts. When we are feeling the sting of our own sin, it feeds the cycle of shame and we run back to these behaviors, often with more intensity and frequency.
It is helpful to understand the cycle of how our heart works:
- We harden our hearts (because of sin and/or sins against us).
- We engage in futile thinking that doesn’t pay attention to our hearts or God’s presence in our lives.
- We pursue sensuality to try to deal with the pain of life.
- As we experience more pain and futility, we harden our hearts again. (the cycle continues)
This cycle demonstrates the futility of trying to deal with behaviors in our lives as the real problem. Sins, or sensual behaviors, are symptoms of a hardened heart and futile thinking. We may find that we achieve temporary changes in our lives by addressing behaviors but lasting change only occurs as we open our hearts to God. We need the Father, Son, and Spirit to meet us in the realities of our lives, giving us insight and His love.
Larry Crabb observed, “As we try to understand the process of change, we must realize that deep change comes about less because of what we try to do and how hard we try to do it, and more because of our willingness to face the realities of our own internal life. Personal integrity, a commitment to never pretend about anything, is prerequisite for change from the inside out.”
Receive His Love in the Real Conditions of Your Life
When we are alienated from the life of God because of ignorance, we are seeing thing trapped within our own perspective (“darkened understanding”). This is the reality that Adam and Eve experienced as they ate the fruit. Their knowledge was divorced from the life of God and was darkened, leading to hardened hearts and all that followed.
In 1 John 1:9, we are invited to confess our sin to God. While this might sound like a drab duty, it is liberating. When we confess our sin, we are freed from the confines of self and ushered into the mutual knowing of the loving Trinity. Confession means to “say the same thing as.” In the case of our sin, it means to say that same thing as God says. For many this simply means labeling certain behaviors as “sin”, thanking God, and moving on. However, I want to suggest that confession also involves opening our hearts to God so that we can actively be known and loved by Him.
As we share ourselves with Him, we are asking Him to give us His perspective on our hearts, minds, and actions. To be able to “say the same thing as” God when it comes to our sin means that we understand not simply how to label behaviors but how the “harden, engage, pursue” cycle is at work in us. Then, confession becomes a mutual knowing, discovering, and freedom as His healing love is applied to the actual conditions of our lives, not just behaviors on the surface.
In addition to confession, the discipline of lament is important in the rhythm of introspection. In the psalms, we see the people of God sharing the pains and hurts of their lives through lament. They lamented as individuals and as communities. They lamented the sinful world around them as well as the sin committed against them. In our modern worship services, we do not usually lament together. It can leave us with the impression that life in Christ is one of proclaiming generic truth of victory, healing, and freedom that does not touch the real us.
Lament provides an opportunity to open our real hurts and pains to the care of the Trinity. The clinical study of grief demonstrates that the process of lament begins with denial and often moves to anger and bargaining before acceptance emerges. Prayers of lament, in which we cry out to God in anger and bargaining, are indispensable in entering into the dance of the Trinity.
Psalm 139 gives us the perspective that there is nowhere we can go to escape the loving presence of the Creator of the universe. However, we can withdraw into our hearts and effectively cut off our awareness of His presence. Confession and lament draw us back to an awareness and attentiveness to God. Psalm 139 ends with this prayer:
Search me, O God, and know my heart! (open through confession and lament)
Try me and know my thoughts! (show me the patterns of empty thinking)
And see if there be any grievous way in me, (show me the ways I harden my heart)
and lead me in the way everlasting! (teach me to dance with the Trinity)
Read through Psalm 13 (psalm of lament) and Psalm 130 (psalm of confession). Write your own psalm of lament and psalm of confession.
Notice that waiting encouraged in Psalm 130. It is in waiting with the Lord after we express our confession or lament that we experience His love. So, take some time to slow down and walk through the discipline of lament or confession and then sit with Him in silence. Ask Him to speak to your heart and then simply listen. As you sit in the presence of the loving Trinity, your sin and pain will experience His gentle touch.
Additional Exercise: growth in confession and lament can be helped along by sitting down with a trusted friend or spiritual companion. Spend some time with a safe person who can listen and reflect the Trinity’s love back to you.
- What does it feel like to be known by someone who loves you?
- What form of denial is most common in your life and how does it play itself out?
- When are you tempted to shut down your heart?
- How does the reality of a loving, transparent God open your heart?
- How do confession and lament give you access to the love of God?
- What is most hopeful and encouraging about being able to be fully transparent with God?
- How is knowing and being known connected to loving and be loved?
- How do you see denial at work in your own life?
- How do Adam and Eve’s experience in Genesis 2 and 3 inform our experience?
- What is confession and why is it more than simply labeling something as sin?
- What would it be like to engage in lament as a community?
- Share your experiences with the Spiritual Exercise.